You can learn a lot about a belief system by examining how its adherents react to alternative beliefs.
I got started thinking about this back when I first read that story about the Vatican’s planned program to invite atheists and agnostics to debate Catholicism “with some of the Catholic Church’s top theologians.” I was initially both amused and excited by this prospect, but I was deflated when I read that “atheists with high public profiles such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens will not be invited.” They’re happy to debate with atheists, but only with regular people who happen to be atheists, and not with people who have made a career out of writing books and giving talks on the subject. Meanwhile, those regular people will be debating “top theologians,” not with regular people who happen to be Catholics.
It sure sounds like they’re afraid of something, doesn’t it? If they’re not willing to subject their ideology to scrutiny from people who actually know how to scrutinize it, that sounds to me like an implicit admission that they know their beliefs wouldn’t hold up. I read on a couple atheist blogs about this particular problem, and about the ridiculousness of the Vatican trying to improve their image this way, but the general topic has been percolating in my mind for a while now. I don’t have much to add to those posts about this particular example, but I do think it highlights a broad feature in the continuum of ways that people think about their own beliefs.
At one extreme, you have groups like the FLDS church or David Koresh’s Branch Davidian cult that wall themselves off from society, forbidding members to interact at all with the outside world. Slightly inward from that, though, are the parents who homeschool their children so they won’t have to study under those evilutionists and forbid them from playing with neighborhood children being raised in family structures that have been deemed unsavory. And of course there are the traditions (including Catholicism) which formally excommunicate those with dissenting opinions, or if not quite that extreme do teach that questioning dogma and entertaining alternative viewpoints are sinful and shameful things to do. This is common among religions, but I don’t think it’s exclusive to them — extreme political factions are prone to this as well (though to be fair, those are often tied to religious dogma).
At the other extreme, you have people who study other beliefs and traditions, travel to other places, read people who don’t agree with them — generally follow the “walk a mile in their shoes” philosophy. They try to understand people who hold different views than they do, or at least get some sense of where they are coming from. In my experience, people of this sort tend to be relatively moderate in their political views; once you understand the logic of the other side, it’s harder to be dead-set against them. As far as religion goes, it’s my experience that they tend to be liberal in their beliefs (arguing that there can be many correct ways to worship God, no one goes to hell, etc.) or they tend to be nonbelievers (because once you’ve seen that all religions are equally pulled from thin air with no basis in reliable fact, it’s hard to get behind any of them).
I like to think that I am somewhere around this latter extreme, so I guess I should start saying “we” instead of “they.”
So, the thing is, even when we have reached the conclusion that there probably is no God, we hang onto this “walk a mile in their shoes” business. The parenting philosophy I most often hear advocated by atheists involves letting your children learn about what others believe, and inviting them to decide what makes the most sense for them. The process itself is important. If my (as-yet-hypothetical) children decide to be religious, that’s their choice — though I am fairly confident that by teaching them how to learn and question and analyze and think for themselves, they will reach the same conclusions that so many of us already have. The possibility of having fundie children someday doesn’t seem significant, and doesn’t worry me a bit.
People at the opposite end of this continuum, though, seem to me to be displaying severe uncertainty about their views, possibly even certainty that their views are wrong. Look at what they are saying by walling themselves and their families off from the world — “If you knew what they were teaching out there, you’d almost definitely believe them and not us, so we have to make sure you never learn what they’re saying!” They are admitting that the only way to keep members of their group in is to prevent them from finding out that anyone else thinks differently. It’s not as though they’re teaching people not to be swayed by rhetoric, to focus instead on facts and evidence. They’re teaching people to close their eyes and cover their ears — to refrain from even glancing at the full set of facts and evidence.
What is the rational response to such a teaching? I would argue that even if you are raised in such an environment, and have not actually seen these other facts that your authority figures are so sure would cause you to disbelieve in their teachings, the best course of action is to disbelieve their teachings pronto. Their message, loud and clear, is that a fully informed person would not believe them. The best you can do, before you are able to access that information firsthand, is to defer to your future self and start disbelieving them now.
Of course, there are people who aren’t so extreme in these tendencies — who merely frown upon the investigation of alternative viewpoints rather than shunning them altogether. They might encourage weak forms of such investigation while ruling out serious kinds. (The Catholic clergy aren’t outright refusing to debate religion with nonbelievers, they’re just refusing to debate the people who are likely to be most skilled at it.)
Still, I think this provides a meaningful way to gauge the value of a belief system. Look at how willing an individual is to learn about beliefs different from their own, or how willing they are to allow their followers to do the same. I maintain that their willingness is directly proportional to how reasonable their beliefs are, and in turn, how seriously we ought to take them.